Since the art of cooking was developed, herbs and spices have played a significant role in the lives of people. In antiquity, spices were an extremely important product for man and its importance laid in the ability to change the taste of food and preserve it – before they were discovered, food was bland and monotonous – spices masked the taste of food when it was going bad, because without the possibility of cold storage during the summer, it acquired odors and flavors due to fermentation or putrefaction.
They also had an important role in natural medicine and in the elaboration of cosmetics and perfumery. Muslims and Asians used them more for their curative powers, than for their role in the kitchen. Many spices were used to embalm bodies, for dying, for the elaboration of fragrances or for their magical powers.
It is assumed that the Romans were the first people to use spices to condiment their dishes and improve their taste. In the middle Ages, the use of spices in the kitchens of wealthy people was generalized. Pepper, vanilla, ginger, cloves, nutmeg and saffron were mainly used. Commoners had to conform to those spices and condiments produced locally.
The first sauces recorded in history, appeared during the middle Ages. There was a sauce called Carmeline which was elaborated from pepper, cinnamon, clove, and mace. The first industrially produced sauces made their debut in the XIX Century, and spices played a very important role in achieving just the right flavor combination. Many sauces that are still in the market today were created then. Sauces such as Heinz, Hellman’s and Tabasco – made with a variety of peppers – considered the most famous sauce in the world.
Nowadays, the greatest dishes of the world cuisine are characterized by specific combinations of herbs, spices, and condiments. These mixtures have been perfected through centuries, and influenced by the native ingredients of each region. The ingredients used on each dish are determined by climate, soil, and local culture; that is how the same basic dishes from different cultures acquire a characteristic touch.
Herbs always go hand in hand with spices and even though their role in the kitchen is the same – to enhance the taste of food – the difference between them in easy to define. Herbs are the leaves of plants, either fresh or dry, while spices are the aromatic parts of plants: seeds, fruit, berries, roots, or bark. They are used dry, generally from plants that come from tropical climates, or fresh from home gardens or supermarkets.
The most widely used spices in the world right now are pepper, paprika, chili, cardamom, clove, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, and curry. Saffron and vanilla are also very popular, but expensive.
It is incredible to think that a few centuries ago, these spices were so difficult to obtain and also very expensive. In order to get them people had to make long journeys and face all kinds of dangers and conflict. Their commercialization involved many people which elevated their price considerably, and caused to only have access to them if you had a lot of money. Today, we just have to go down the supermarket and buy what we need. There is an assortment of herbs and spices from around the world at a fraction of the price they use to have.